20 Visible Signs That Your Dog is Sick

If you were expecting the same old-same old list that has been copied from 100 different Internet sites, keep reading. Sure, I did the usual check of quality websites to be sure I’m not delivering nonsense to you, but I have owned several dogs over the years, including a Sheltie (the mini kind), a mixed breed collie, and a dog of questionable character who looked more like a wolf than a dog. Acted like one, too. And most dog owners know other dog owners, so more than just my own furry friends I have come to know something about the canine species.

Anyone who has owned a dog knows there are 100 good stories that go with them. Instead of writing a depressing article about sick puppies, I’ll be sure to inject some stories to lighten up the mood. At least when your dog throws up on your light colored carpet you’ll have a memory to connect to it. I have also provided a few comedy video clips to remind you that dogs can be funny people too.

The logic is that while all puppies are dogs, not all dogs are puppies. There are visible signs of sickness in puppies that you rarely will see in adult dogs, so be sure to remember the difference. One way that often works in determining if your puppy or dog is sick is to see their reaction when you use the word “bath.”

So here we go. There is no particular order or rank of these signs, so it is best to treat every sign as a potentially serious matter.

1. Your dog has a hard time going up the stairs.

First story. You always remember your first dog as a kid. This mixed breed collie was high energy. Unfortunately, once he got older my oldest brother thought the dog was disciplined enough to run loose without a leash. Bad idea. Car meets dog; dog is down for the count. But there is a happy ending to the story. My dad called the dog from halfway down the street. The dog umps up and runs full sprint to my dad. But there were those 14 stairs he had to navigate up, and without much success.

A dog’s hind legs, their haunches (new word) are what give them their running and jumping abilities. When they are having problems with stair climbing, time to give them a serious checkup. If you heard the phrase that someone or something is on its last legs, think the same about your dog, as it is often a sign they are close to their expiration date.

2. Coughing, excessive panting, or difficulty breathing

The majority of the time you hear a dog cough is when they have something stuck in their throat. Anything else is usually a sign that there is something more going on. When it comes to breathing, it is easy to recognize when your furry friend is having problems just by watching him as he is breathing laying down on his side. Breathing with their mouth open when laying down normally (not after a romp around the park or on a hot day) needs to be checked out. Yes, your dog can have asthma, but there are medications that can give him a long and healthy life.

3. Excessive drinking or urination

As with humans, you dog can become diabetic. The signs are very similar, and unless the dog is properly diagnosed and treated, they can die. If your house trained dog starts urinating in the house, that is a general indicator of diabetes. They will almost internally explode before going in the house after they are housebroken. There may be other reasons for the excessive drooling or urination, but it is clearly a reason to visit the vet as soon as possible.

4. Moping around

The technical tern for this behavior is lethargy. This is one of those problems that is different for puppies than for adult dogs. Puppies are generally romping around, playful, and generally getting into trouble when they are not napping. Adult dogs mellow out over time, often looking at you asking, “What are you doing now?” You should know what your dog’s normal activity levels are and see when something isn’t right. It might not require an emergency vet visit, but it is definitely something to keep your eye on.

5. Loss of appetite

This is an easy one. Dogs love to eat, almost as much as we do. And if they are healthy they will take huge risks to get that extra table scrap. During one family Christmas, the Sheltie was invited to come along. He maybe was 20 pounds soaking wet. After eating Christmas dinner, we retired into the living room for the gift exchange. Dogs tend to go unnoticed during such times because, well, they can be trusted, right? My brother just happened to walk back into the kitchen to find the dog on the table dragging a large piece of ham to the floor. At least he didn’t go after the ham bone. Anyway, if your dog doesn’t want to eat it is a definite problem. Maybe they will not want to eat if you have spoiled them on table scraps, but they will always want to eat. A vet visit is in order when the pooch loses their appetite for more than a day or so.

6. A noticeable change in behavior

This may seem like a broad, catch all because there could be any number of reasons for the change. Puppies may find it difficult adjusting to a new home or environment. But here’s the thing. Unless you can identify why the change of behavior beyond a reasonable doubt, there are things that can make your dog sick that if left untreated, can kill them. Owners sometimes wait to get a distemper booster shot, but the delay can give the dog serious problems. Most dogs are very consistent in their behavior, so simply taking the time to notice what they are doing on a normal day will go a long way in helping you to determine whether they are sick or just moody.

7. Constipation

That says it all since most of us know what it feels like to have the plumbing clogged up. But dogs are not like humans, and an inability to do their doody at least once every other day can be a sign of other problems. A dog can get a hernia in the vicinity of his rectum which causes him to become constipated. This is one situation that needs to be treated before it leads to other problems. Another possibility is your dog has been eating things he shouldn’t and something is blocking his intestinal tract. If you cut Fido loose in your yard to do his duty, don’t just close the door and wait for him to finish. Watch to see what he is doing.

8. Bad breath or drooling way more than normal

How many dog owners actually brush their dog’s teeth regularly is unknown, mainly because we think that a dog’s mouth is a good thing. The idea that a dog’s mouth has fewer germs than a human’s has been making the rounds for years. But dogs can get infections in their gums which will lead to doggie dental problems, including the possibility of them losing their teeth. As for the drooling, it is important to pay attention to when the drooling occurs. The Sheltie liked to sit on my lap during car rides and he would drool a pool. I later found out that the reason for his excess saliva was that he was either anxious about the ride or just generally car sick. But when doggie is drooling too much during normal activities, it is time for a vet check.

9. Digging in their ear(s)

This is both an immediate problem and a problem that can get worse if ignored. There are several possibilities: a buildup of wax, an insect that managed to get in there, or just plain dirty ears. But the pooch will try and clean out the problem themselves, and with those nails can dig into their ear, causing an infection. There are over the counter products that can help, but if the digging continues it is time to take them to the vet.

10. Licking at a specific spot constantly

No, not there. Many dog owners notice that dogs tend to lick their wounds as an attempt to heal their master. But a dog constantly licking his own wound is a sign it is something that will not heal on its own. The wound can be the result of an injury, another animal biting them, or just them licking a particular spot as a stress relief mechanism. This last cause is usually found in older dogs who become less active, putting more weight on their bones (particularly elbows and legs) causing them a degree of pain. Though taking the dog to the vet may help, don’t expect for him to tell you the problem is solved because sometimes they don’t know themselves why the dog is licking themselves.

Dalmation Barking

11. Growling or snapping

As much as we like our dogs when they are playful and entertain us, when they are sick their mood will likely change to a snarling, growling mongrel. If you get “the look” when touching a part of their body, followed by growing or snapping, it is likely they have an injury. It might not be visible; a fracture or sprain can be painful and hidden. In such cases you need to let a vet handle the problem because they have stuff that will calm the dog down or knock them out totally. When a dog exhibits this kind of behavior you never know what to expect.

12. Bloody diarrhea

Though it rarely happens in adult dogs, this is a huge problem for puppies. One of the most important reasons is it is a symptom of the Parvo virus, an infection that can lead to the death of the puppy in less than 72 hours. The two major ways a puppy gets infected is if they have not been vaccinated or if they have a compromised immune system. They will also be throwing up, so if both problems are present it is critical to get the puppy to the vet pronto.

Dogs locate cancer

13. Lumps

Remember we are talking about visible signs of sickness, not things that require a veterinary visit or lab tests. If a lump is big enough to see, the magnitude of the problem has likely increased dramatically. Ignoring it is always a bad idea because unless you know it is from an injury (which means you should have already taken Fido to the vet) it could be a tumor that will spread and result in amputation or even death. Do not panic and think that it is “too late” because the problem has not been identified yet.

14. The pupils of their eyes have changed

This is the top visible sign on the list that most people will have no clue about because they look past their dog’s eyes. The secret is in noticing changes in the pupils of their eyes. Be honest. How many times have you not only noticed the pupils of your dog’s eyes, but remembered what they looked like on a normal day? Yet it is a very visible sign if you can compare the changes in their pupils. If there is a problem with their eyes their pupils will get smaller and you will likely see them squinting. For virtually every other part of their body that is in pain, you will see a noticeable difference as their pupils will get considerably larger.

puppy with blue eyes

15. The whites of their eyes have changed color

When a reddish color appears in the whites of their eyes, it is usually the result of a viral or bacterial infection the dog has picked up during the normal course of the day. Because dogs are closer to the ground, they are also closer to the bugs, plants, and general iciness we like to keep away from our faces. If you let them roam in areas where there are tall plants, the likelihood of infection increases. Until the exact bacteria is identified, you risk your dog becoming blind over time. It may not require an ER visit, but it should be taken care of as soon as possible.

16. Withdrawal

I’ll use a short cat story here and then make the connection. A cat had been bringing home baby bunnies for dinner after hunting at night. A couple of days later, he returned with nothing but a scared look in his eye. He went and his for 3 straight days before he re-emerged. Apparently mom and dad rabbit kicked his furry butt. Now when it comes to dogs, they will also withdraw for emotional or physical reasons. We don’t have to have a degree in Canine Psychology, but if the dog all of a sudden is hard to find, it may be that they are in some type of pain. Internal pain will have external evidence in most cases.

17. Walking around like a drunken sailor

This will be seen far more in puppies than adult dogs, but don’t ignore the behavior in mature canines. Watching a puppy chase its tail is one thing, and that is normal behavior for a vast majority of pooches. But when they mope around the house with their head down, unable to walk a straight line, it is time for a quick check before heading off to the vet. Two of the most common reasons for this behavior are low blood sugar and being dehydrated. If the weather or general environment has been warmer than normal, that may be the reason for the dehydration. Low blood sugar may only be around for a day or so, but if it persists get your friend to the vet.

18. Continual whimpering

You know the sound. That pathetic little cry that often is used when the dog is seeking attention. More than a few dogs I’ve been around start with a whimper, then progress to a full objectional bark when my girlfriend and I start hugging or kissing. Then there is the other kind when you can see it in their eyes that the whimpering means something has gone wrong. Unless you have completely ignored your dog, a constant whimpering is an indication of some type of physical or emotional pain.

19. Swelling in the joints or limbs

Like the pupil size of your dog’s eyes, this is something that is easily overlooked by dog owners. Your dog may walk with a limp or appear stiff in his normal gait. Many owners call a dog’s normal gait “prancing” as if they are in a dog show. So if you see them wobbling or walking slower than usual, check their legs for swelling. Dogs can get arthritis through a bacterial or viral infection, though it also occurs over time with age as part of the natural aging process. Dogs who are overweight or obese are more likely to develop problems in the joints and limbs, as well as those whose physical activity is reduced or limited.

20. Sneezing more often than once or twice over a few days

Whether you dog is a pug nosed Pug or a long nosed Collie, one of the reasons we love our dogs is because of that oh-so-attractive snout. What would a dog be without a snout? But unlike our noses, theirs are longer and require more attention than ours. Repetitive sneezing may be a sign there is something stuck up their nose, a problem that you can neither know for sure or fix. As for a runny nose, when our noses run controllably we often think there is a cold coming on or something of a similar nature. Ditto for doggie. Try not to put much emphasis on a warm nose, because despite what is commonly said, a warm nose is not always a sign of a sick puppy.

So there you have the list of the 20 Visible Signs That Your Dog is Sick. As you can see, there is a reason there is no “high priority” listing because it depends on a number of factors. Owning a dog is a responsibility that is to be taken seriously, which shouldn’t be a problem given all the fun times you and your Furhead will have in the years to come. Dog owners love happy, playful dogs because they are eager to please. Being aware of what to look for is just a matter of learning as you go – and letting the vet do the rest.

One critical part of caring for your dog’s health is to regularly check their paws. The problem for dog owners is that dogs are very good at hiding their pain, and while paw pain is not necessarily visible from the top, it is easily the most important part of a dog’s general health. Their paws take them everywhere they want to go, and walk on some surfaces that would cause you pain, such as a hot asphalt street. So here is a bonus section on what to look for on your dog’s paw pads.

On hot days or when they are out for long walks on hard surfaces, their pads can become cracked, a primer for infection. Some people use moisturizer to keep the pads soft. If you find them cracked you should get them on softer ground and use plain water to begin the healing process. (If you are wondering how I know this, it’s because your dog will lick their paws to achieve the same result.) When winter comes around, the streets and sidewalks will be salted to de-ice the concrete. Those salt crystals can get caught between the pads and cause the dog pain. After going out, check his paws for any salt residue and after pulling it out, follow up with some water.


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